The daunting and taunting of the bulging bookshelf

Nothing in a home excites me more than bookshelves crammed and jammed with actual books, as opposed to knickknacks, tchotchkes and corny picture frames. Filled right, they are towering works of art, swirls of graphics and oceans of colors.

I love engorged, groaning bookshelves, whose heaving pulp cargo functions as stylish and classy decor, the jostling spines stringing rainbow rows of erudition, edification and entertainment. So gorgeous and seductive is a grand, brimming bookshelf, it’s almost erotic.


At minimum, it takes hundreds of volumes to stock an amply, aptly impressive bookshelf. It takes a collector’s fervor, an obsessive appetite for those bound squares of facts, fiction and, so often, beauty.  

But there’s this: Do we actually read all the books in these sprawling collections? Or do they act largely as pretentious decor, literary plumage that flatters the owner?

That depends, but I know I rigorously try to read every title on my shelves, as nearly impossible and as crazily aspirational that proposition is. Still, I don’t see them as frills and frippery. I simply think walls of books look amazing. (Bookshops and libraries: Platonic ideals of aesthetic glory.)

I confess I don’t read all the books I acquire. One, the quantity is too great, especially when new books keep crashing my bulging bookosphere. Two, not every book is worth reading — too many just aren’t good enough. 

So, as I’ve mused here before, I frequently dispense with books that aren’t thrilling me. The rate that I put books down at the 50-, 80- or 100-page mark is deplorable. It’s also necessary. I show no quarter.

“I own far more books than I could possibly read over the course of my remaining life, yet every month I add a few dozen more to my shelves,” writes Kevin Mims in this essay in the New York Times.

That is a sickness I know well. But mostly I’ve stopped this hoardish habit. I realize now that not every well-reviewed book or immortal classic is worth picking up.   

I used to work in a corporate bookstore — the biggest bookstore in San Francisco at the time — and, like that ravenous kid in the candy store, the one with chocolate smeared all over his mouth, I couldn’t help but accrue a gigantic book collection. It fast became overwhelming, so I kept a list on a lined yellow notepad of all the books I hadn’t yet read, planning to cross titles off as I went. Sheer folly, that.

I have since evolved and have become the prince of the partially read book. Though my shelves boast more tomes that I have actually completed, the rejects are copious. 

And then there are the books I haven’t even cracked yet, and may never get to. In his essay, Mims locates a term for this: “tsundoku, a Japanese word for a stack of books that you have purchased but not yet read. My personal library is about one-tenth books I have read and nine-tenths tsundoku.”

That doesn’t mean your fabulous bookshelves are mere pretty repositories, ceiling-scraping storage bins. They are libraries and all that that word implies: knowledge, art, stories, journeys, lives, cracking your head open with the world.  

Says Mims:

A person’s library is often a symbolic representation of his or her mind. A man who has quit expanding his personal library may have reached the point where he thinks he knows all he needs to and that what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him. He has no desire to keep growing intellectually. The man with an ever-expanding library understands the importance of remaining curious, open to new ideas and voices.”


* Late postscript: I stumbled upon this nifty quote in my readings later today. It’s from “The Bookish Life,” an article by Joseph Epstein:

So many books are there in the world that no one can get round to even all the best among them, and hence no one can claim to be truly well-read. Some people are merely better-read than others. Nobody has read, or can read, everything, and by everything I include only the good, the beautiful, the important books.”

Never done with Stephen Dunn

As sort of a literary snack, some lyrical Cheetos, I recently dipped into one of my favorite poetry books, Stephen Dunn’s “Different Hours.” It’s magnificent; so many fine poems, so many lines that quietly slash. The poems are all about wisdom and honesty and breakage, lovers and loss and burying a cat.


I don’t care so much that the book won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, though it surely deserved it. I do care that it contains this stanza:

I was burned by books early/and kept sidling up to the flame.

And I care even more that it has this bracing verse, from the final poem in the collection, “A Postmortem Guide (For my eulogist, in advance)”:

Tell them that at the end I had no need

for God, who’d become just a story

I once loved, one of many

with concealments and late-night rescues,

high sentence and pomp. The truth is

I learned to live without hope

as well as I could, almost happily,

in the despoiled and radiant now.

Those shimmering words shatter me, in a most positive fashion. (“In the despoiled and radiant now”!) The verse is frank but droll, vulnerable and confessional. It’s written with the points of melancholy stars.

Dunn, like his comrade in wry minimalism, Billy Collins, wields an unabashed colloquial touch, his plain-spokenness littered (glittered?) with joyous turns of phrase and often mischievous, tip-toeing humor.

He’s a master of subtlety, but any perceived simplicity is thoroughly deceptive. If you think Dunn’s poems are simple-minded, even pablum, you are sorely mistaken. You haven’t done the work.

Coruscating culture quotations of the day

These are a few quotes about the arts that I’ve carried around for a while. I believe they’re intellectual gold:

On art:

“Art, love and God — they’re dumb words, and probably the dumbest is art. I don’t know what it is, art. But I believe in it, so far.” — Damien Hirst


 “The last hope is that art may transmute the disappointments of life into something more radiant and stable; the lasting bitterness is that although art may guide ‘what pangs there be/Into a bearable choreography,’ it does not repair the original life-rift.” — Helen Vendler, with excerpts from poet James Merrill



On theater and art:

“The new generation of theatergoers are suburban know-nothings dumbed down to the point of expecting art to be some kind of inclusive, fraudulently life-affirming group-grope, instead of what it is: arrogant, autocratic, and potentially monstrous!” — David Hirson, “Wrong Mountain”


On acting:

“If you intend to follow the truth you feel in yourself — to follow your common sense, and force your will to serve you in the quest for discipline and simplicity — you will subject  yourself to profound despair, loneliness, and constant self-doubt. And if you persevere, the Theatre, which you are learning to serve, will grace you, now and again, with the greatest exhilaration it is possible to know.” — David Mamet



On writing:

“One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment.” — Hart Crane


“What writers hear when they are trying to write is something more like singing than like speaking. Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time. Getting that voice down on paper is a depressing experience. When you write, you’re trying to transpose what you’re thinking into something that is less like an annoying drone and more like a piece of music.” — Louis Menand


“More than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language; it is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.” — Katie Roiphe

In defense of proudly prosaic poetry

Who likes poetry? I mean, who sincerely enjoys and delights in the art’s nose-crinkling inaccessibility, willful allusiveness and opaque flights of fancy? Who, really, likes to be flummoxed?

I do. Not much. But a little.

With a philistinian gulp, I admit that I prefer my poetry streamlined, simple, more aerodynamic than pyrotechnic. “Prose poetry” — the wondrous fictions of Nabokov, Marquez, Marilynne Robinson, Cormac McCarthy, to name a few — is what I really savor, alongside the vaulting, tongue-tangling verse of Shakespeare’s plays. (I haven’t worked hard enough to appreciate the Bard’s beloved Sonnets. I know, I know. Poetry, see, so often requires toil. I tire easily.)

Recently reviewing the great Ben Lerner’s book-length essay “The Hatred of Poetry,” The New York Times remarked: “A lot of people seem to hate poetry, which is arguably neck-and-neck with mime as the most animus-attracting of art forms. Loathing rains down on poetry, from people who have never read a page of it as well as from people who have devoted their lives to reading and writing it.”

I‘m loving the Times.

Now, here’s what feels like a blushing confession, a bald admission that I am, at long last, a quasi-poetryphobe. And that is: My favorite poet is Billy Collins. Elfin in aspect, with a humble mien and dazzling intelligence, Collins might be the most popular poet in America. His publishing deals are staggering. He enjoyed two stints as U.S. Poet Laureate. His readings are thronged. He’s like the Tom Hanks of poetry.

He also might be one of America’s most loathed poets, caught in that love-hate swirl of backlash — or simple lash. He’s deplored by many readers, critics and fellow poets, dismissed as easy, anodyne and frivolous, appealing to the lowest-common denominator, the beach-read slugs.

Billy Collins Photo and Book 07212014.jpg

As The Buffalo News said: “To his critics, Collins is a ‘major minor’ poet at best whose work is formulaic, if not predictable, and whose relentless efforts to charm the reader assume that the only way a poem can work is on the demotic level, which is to say, as colloquial speech.”

An online wag cracked: “Billy Collins is to good poetry what Kenny G is to Charlie Parker; what sunset paintings at the mall are to Jackson Pollock.”

Or, jeez, perhaps Collins is the Thomas Kinkade of poets.

Then again, no.

Collins’ gently cascading language is deceptively dismissible. It doesn’t boogie; it waltzes and sways. The poems are indeed colloquial, plain-spoken, but the artist braids his mini-narratives just so, to surprising and droll effect. Explosions are rare. He ferrets out little truths in life’s nooks, casting a soft, never-blinding light on them, hoisting them as shiny epiphanies that make you nod in gratitude.

Almost consistently funny, his poems are also often dark, shot through with self-deprecation and doubt about the whole racket of writing. It’s charmingly self-referential, even a bit neurotic.

Collins is the master of  “witty poems that welcome readers with humor but often slip into quirky, tender or profound observation on the everyday,” That’s the Poetry Foundation, which also cites no less than John Updike (speaking of an exemplary prose poet), who praised Collins’ “lovely poems” as “limpid, gently and consistently startling, more serious than they seem, they describe all the worlds that are and were and some others besides.”

Read for yourself here.

One of Collins’ poems, “The Country,” which opens the fine collection “Nine Horses,” hooked me early on, made me follow him all the way:

I wondered about you

when you told me never to leave

a box of wooden, strike-anywhere matches

lying around the house because the mice

might get into them and start a fire.

But your face was absolutely straight

when you twisted the lid down on the round tin

where the matches, you said, are always stowed.

Who could sleep that night?

Who could whisk away the thought

of the one unlikely mouse

padding along a cold water pipe

behind the floral wallpaper

gripping a single wooden match

between the needles of his teeth?

Who could not see him rounding a corner,

the blue tip scratching against a rough-hewn beam,

the sudden flare, and the creature

for one bright, shining moment

suddenly thrust ahead of his time —

now a fire-starter, now a torchbearer

in a forgotten ritual, little brown druid

illuminating some ancient night.

Who could fail to notice,

lit up in the blazing insulation,

the tiny looks of wonderment on the faces

of his fellow mice, onetime inhabitants

of what once was your house in the country?

That poem cracks me up every time. It’s funny yet concerned, a little nerdy. (You can watch an animated video of the poem here.)

Thing is, Collins wants poetry to be easy and lucid and fun and moving. He’s curated two volumes of such work, “Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry,”  featuring poems by, among others, Catherine Bowman, Philip Levine, William Matthews, Paul Muldoon, Mary Jo Salter and Pulitzer Prize-winner Stephen Dunn, my second favorite poet, who also traffics in prosey stylings that illuminate life with wry melancholy. (Check him out, especially, I think, “A Postmortem Guide,” which I’d like read at my own ashes scattering. Classic stanza: I learned to live without hope/as well as I could, almost happily,/in the despoiled and radiant now.)

It doesn’t matter that Collins is no Larkin, Wordsworth, Heaney, Dickinson or Keats. Hell, maybe he is. I don’t know. But like the best art, his quirky poems are nourishing. They stimulate and tickle. They please me. I think that’s enough.